ACoNs Speak Out: The Highlights of a Recent Study About Parental Narcissism

[via flickr user Raul Liberwirth]

[via flickr user Raul Liberwirth]

Editor’s Note: This May, research project manager Valerie Coles emailed me about giving adult children of narcissists (ACoNs) an opportunity to participate in her study (along with Dr. Jennifer Monahan) about parental narcissism. Tonight, she sent the highlights of the summary and news. Note that the researcher used the term “perceived” not to invalidate ACoNs’ experiences but to show objectivity. She explains this in an email: “The term ‘perceived’ is used since we are operating out of an academic lens and objectively we are testing perceived narcissism. The only way to not include perceived and have the scale go anywhere to be of use is to test the narcissistic parent directly and then the entire point of the study (assessing narcissism from the child’s perceptive) is eliminated.”

Her email regarding survey highlights follows:

Thanks again to everyone for helping us develop and validate a measure of parental narcissism! The response from the ACON community was tremendous, and we are the envy of our colleagues that so many of you took time out of your lives to help us with this research.

We currently have a paper from the questionnaire out at an academic journal for review. If it is accepted for publication, we will update this message with a link for the article.  Below is a brief and general review of some of our findings. When the scale and findings are published, you will have the opportunity to look at more specifics.  Please note that some of the results may seem “common sense,” but we needed to build off a foundation of empirical research since, as you know, there is presently no published scale that measures parental narcissism behaviors from the perspective of the adult child, and very little research in general. Thank you again!

Scale Development and Study 1

Our goal was to develop a measure of parental narcissism. We started with 36-items. A total of 1,236 people took this original scale, 976 of which were ACONS from 34 countries. We examined whether the 36-items worked together as a scale.  We eliminated items that were problematic and ended up with 18 items that assessed four dimensions of parental narcissism: lack of empathy/indifference, negative grandiosity, center of attention, public versus private personas.

  • Lack of Empathy/Indifference
    A lack of empathy is a key characteristic of narcissism. On the ACON sites, the lack of empathy is often described behaviorally as indifference and examples given by ACONS of parental indifference include the parent minimizing the feelings of the child and a lack of interest in the child’s feelings.
  • Negative Grandiosity
    Grandiosity is “an inflated appraisal of one’s worth, knowledge, importance or identity.” Measures that assess grandiosity from the narcissists’ perspective, not surprisingly, focus on the positive side of grandiosity (“I am the best!”). From the ACON perspective, however, it is the negative grandiosity, that occurs especially when the narcissistic parent feels under attack and, thus, vulnerable. From the ACON perspective, when a narcissistic parent fails or is in the spotlight for not being a good parent, her/his insecurity can result in grandiose statements that reflect the parent is “the worst parent in the world” or “no one loves me.”
  • Center of Attention
    Center of attention dimension reflects the positive, inflated, self-absorbed, and individualistic disposition of the narcissist. For the narcissist, the world is about “I” and “me” never “you” or “we.” From the ACON perspective, nothing is about the child unless it benefits the parent in some way. ACONs also write about how conversations focus around the parent’s interests rather than the child’s.
  • Public versus Private Personas
    Narcissists can carefully construct their self-presentation in public such that they appear less negative in public than in private, at least in the short term. While differing public/private personas is not a characteristic typically measured by narcissism scales, it is a behavior often noted by ACONS who write of parents who present a friendly, charming persona only in public.

These 18-items formed into these four dimensions of parental narcissism behavior (lack of empathy, negative grandiosity, center of attention, and different public/private personas). The four dimensions all correlated highly with each other and together the four formed a final “Perceived Parental Narcissistic Behavior” (PPNBI) scale. 

To create the PPNBI scale, we summed up the scores on the 18 items.

What is the PPNBI Related to for the ACON?

ACONS who took the parental narcissism scale also completed some scales about themselves. 

Here are some of our findings:

  • Higher scores on parental narcissism (PPNBI) were positively associated with ACONs feeling depressed as a teen and also with feeling depressed within the last year.
  • Higher scores on parental narcissism (PPNBI) were negatively associated with feelings of well-being as a teen and with feelings of well-being in the last year.
  • ACONS with higher scores on the parental narcissism scale were more likely to indicate you don’t trust other people, in general.

What other measures of the narcissistic parent is the PPNBI related to?

Scores of parental narcissism are…

  • Negatively associated with feeling that your parent cares for you and negatively associated with feeling like your parent gave you freedom to be yourself/do what you wanted to do.
  • Positively associated with idealizing one child in the family (aka: a golden child) and with devaluing a child (aka: a scapegoat).
  • Very strongly related to verbal aggression.  The higher the scores of parental narcissism, the more verbally aggressive the parent acted.

Study 2

In study 2, we tested the 18-item scale again to see whether it worked the same way and generated the four factors (lack of empathy, center of attention, negative grandiosity, and different public/private personas). In Study 2, 625 participated (505 were ACONS from 34 countries).

We did replicate the findings from Study 1 that found these four factors and that the four factors all worked together to form the Perceived Parental Narcissistic Behavior Index (PPNBI).

What other measures of the parent is the PPNBI related to?

In Study 2 we found further evidence that the PPNBI is a valid and reliable score. For example, that the PPNBI was positively associated with a typical measure of narcissism (Narcissistic Personality Inventory).  This was good news as it provides us evidence that our scale IS capturing narcissistic behavior.

Additionally, we found that the PPNBI was negatively related to a parent being perceived as agreeable and positively associated with a parent being perceived as extraverted.  For the ACON, we found that those who rated their parent high on the PPNBI were more likely to negatively associate with the secure attachment style and positively associate with the fearful attachment style.

Finally, parents who score high on the PPNBI were also more likely to score highly on parentification, which is a term for making the kids do the work of a parent.  The more narcissistic your parent, the more likely the parent had expectations that the kids would take care of things a parent would normally do.

* * *

In conclusion, the goal of this research was to develop and provide initial validation data for the Perceived Parental Narcissistic Behavior Index (PPNBI). The identification of perceived parental narcissism is critical to gain a better understanding of and illuminate the unique challenges ACONs encounter. Before the PPNBI, no measure allowed family members to assess whether a parental figure was narcissistic. The PPNBI is an 18-item measure that taps into four types of parental narcissistic behavior: lack of empathy, center of attention, negative grandiosity, and different public/private personas. The PPNBI correlates with a known measure of narcissism and correlates with being verbally aggressive and caring less about one’s children. The PPNBI is positively associated with ACONs depression and negatively associated with their well-being and ability to trust others.

Across both studies, 1,481 ACONs worldwide from 48 countries participated and many webmasters generously posted the study URL on their web pages (THANK YOU!). This is the first study for either of us where we received over 100 emails from participants thanking us for doing the research and letting us know how meaningful it is that researchers are paying attention to the ACON population and their family dynamics.

As we mentioned above, the full research from this study is under review at a journal.  If it is accepted and published, we will be delighted to send you a link to the research (we can’t do this until the work is published).  We can’t thank all of you enough for helping out with our research. The $100 gift cards were selected by a random drawing and have already been mailed to the winners.

Again, many thanks!

Valerie B. Coles, MA
PhD Student, Research Project Manager
University of Georgia

Veronica Jarski is founder and managing editor of The Invisible Scar, a passion project dedicated to raising awareness of emotional child abuse and its effects on adult survivors. She has extensive editorial experience and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Her work has been featured on myriad publications, such as Kapost, Loyola Press, MarketingProfs, and Ragan.

12 thoughts on “ACoNs Speak Out: The Highlights of a Recent Study About Parental Narcissism

  1. I am very excited to learn how narcissism in parents and the effects on the children smash through so many cultures! That is a huge deal! We ACoNs span the globe, and finally there will be science to start backing our claims, and no longer will our voices be silenced or shunned with it being “all in your head.”
    Do not mistake my excitement as being “happy,” for in truth, I am saddened at the sheer numbers of us who have suffered soul shredding, core defying, “is there recovery from this?” kind of abuse.

    The timing of this is an encouragement for me, as just yesterday I sent an email to my parents, notifying them of our temporary “NC” now being >permanent<.

    Thank you for sharing the initial results, and I look forward to the published paper, as well!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am curious why the term “Perceived” was used for the Index. Please be mindful that for ACONS many are told that their “perceptions” are wrong as we are gaslighted by our abusers. In fact this one message I got from my narcissistic mother that I was just “perceiving” things wrong. Why not call it an abuse Index without that word added to it? I don’t know if this was intended but it denotes a stance of “disbelief” towards the ACON.

    “Perceived Parental Narcissistic Behavior Index (PPNBI).”

    I would also like to know if either researcher herself is an ACON?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Peep,

      Valerie Coles replied to this question in an email: “The term ‘perceived’ is used since we are operating out of an academic lens and objectively we are testing perceived narcissism. The only way to not include perceived and have the scale go anywhere to be of use is to test the narcissistic parent directly and then the entire point of the study (assessing narcissism from the child’s perceptive) is eliminated.”

      I’ll add this to the Editor’s Note at top since your concern may be a common one regarding this wording.

      Also, yes, one of the researcher is an ACoN.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!


    • Hi Peep,

      Thank you for your comment! You raise a valid question. In addition to the email I sent to Veronica discussing the purpose of using the term “perception” in an academic lens I would like to add:

      People often challenge us when we say a parent is an alcoholic or a narcissist. They might say “When did you become a psychologist?” In response to that we called the scale the perceived narcissism scale so it was clear that this is the perception of the adult child. That may be that the parent hasn’t been officially deemed a narcissist by a psychologist or a psychiatrist but the ACON sees narcissistic behaviors and believes the parent is a narcissist (again, this does not mean that the parent is not an actual narcissist). It truly didn’t dawn on us until we read your comments that the use of “perceived” could have been taken in a way that invalidated your experiences. Its pretty clear in hindsight and we apologize.

      I hope this helps clarify our decision.


      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for listening to my question. I am glad you thought about it.

    One problem for ACONs and you kind of sum it up here is “how do you know your parent is a narcissist?” To be honest no narcissist is going to step foot in a therapist’s office so how does an ACON prove the problem? While I had some good therapists many do not believe us nor the effects of narcissistic abuse, they tell ACONs to reconcile with full blown narcissists and sociopaths. Unless a malignant narc breaks the law and gets caught and gets a court ordered psychologist test, there is never going to be an “official diagnosis” for most ACONs regarding their narcissistic or sociopathic parents. I am glad you have considered the effects of the word “Perceived.”

    Maybe in the study world there is no solution for this given the rules. Narcissists operate in darkness and it is the rare one that darkens the doorsteps of psychologists and therapists. This may be one reason so little is known about them. It is something ACONs face.

    Thanks for listening to my concerns.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Peep,

      Thanks for bringing up the concern regarding the word “perceived.”

      Do keep in mind, too, that the word “perceived” has more than one meaning. To perceive also means “to become aware or conscious of (something); come to realize or understand.”

      The word is fitting, I think, to describe how ACoNs come to the realization that they have been abused. That realization is a huge, life-altering step, and it definitely takes a special kind of courage to stand up for oneself amid a society geared to favor parents.

      Yes, standing up for one’s self amid abuse can be extremely lonely, especially for an ACoN.

      Fortunately, myriad resources exist for children of ACoNs to find a place to vent or comfort one another. One such good resource is

      Books that have been recommended include “Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers” by Karyl McBride and “Children of the Self-Absorbed” by Nina Brown.

      Moreover, one of the best blogs covering ACoNs is; the author is no longer as active but the articles and her personal experiences are extremely helpful.

      This blog, though it discusses NPD parents a bit, is not solely about NPD… but it’s my hope that all who come to The Invisible Scar find some hope for their healing journey, resources to help them along the way, validation, and the understanding they are not alone.

      Peace to you.


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